We all know what it’s like to get stuck on a particularly difficult part of a video game. Sometimes it gets to the point where no matter how many times you restart, hurl your controller across the room, or scream at your console, you’re just incapable of making any headway. You find yourself going to bed, convinced Microsoft are persecuting you, that the developers made a mistake, that the game is faulty and literally impossible.
Then, as you drift off to sleep, the game intrudes upon your dreams. Vivid first person shooter screenshots pierce your subconscious. Familiar faces and locations become intertwined with bizarre fragments from the game world. You wake up feeling almost like you’ve been playing some wired abstract expansion of the game all night in your head. You power up your Xbox, load your saved game, and then, as if by magic, beat the game on your first or second attempt.
Scientists have always been aware of a direct link between sleeping and learning. They argue that to properly assimilate new information, a person must sleep for a minimum of six hours a night.
However, scientists still struggle to understand the exact impact which dreams – more specifically, the actual content of dreams – have upon the waking mind. According to Freud, dreams are manifestations of repressed aggressive sexual desires. Every male child, for example, posseses a desire to castrate their father, usurp their role, and sleep with their mothers (vis-versa for females).
But, according to an article in New Scientist, researchers from the Institute of Neuroscience Natal in Brazil are attempting to prove that there may be more to our dreams than just sex and incest.
Professor Sidarta Ribeiro and his team of scientists conducted an experiment in which 22 volunteers spent two nights in a laboratory under observation. The volunteers had electrodes strapped to their scalps in order to monitor how playing the FPS game Doom before bed affected their dreams, and in turn, whether dreams affected their ability to improve.
For the first night, the volunteers simply got used to the lab, whilst on the second they played Doom for an hour before going to sleep. The researchers then monitored the volunteers during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep- the period when we dream the most – and woke the subjects to question them about the exact content of their dreams.
The volunteers were asked to list all the images and thoughts which they associated with the video game such as shotguns, rocket launchers, blood, etc whilst the scientists analysed reports of brain activity to measure the extent to which Doom intruded upon their dreams. They then measured this against the players overall improvement which was based upon number of deaths, weapon accuracy, and the amount of puzzles/ secrets solved.
The results showed a clear correlation between the subjects who made the biggest improvement and the level of Doom related dream intrusions during REM sleep. However, although the seven players who improved the most had intrusion levels far higher than the seven who made the least improvement, the eight who dreamt most about Doom only improved slightly. This led scientist Ribeiro to conclude that, much like the stimulant caffeine, moderation was the key to success.
‘When you’re too obsessed about something, you’re dreaming about blood and monsters, you can’t do well’ Ribeiro announced whilst presenting his findings to the Society of Neuroscience at a meeting in Chicago. Despite the fact that his findings are inconclusive, Ribeiro insists that dreaming and learning are ‘intimately linked’.
Although some elements of this experiment seem quite dubious, one interesting point which the scientists stumbled across was that - according to the volunteer’s level of brain activity – it seemed the subjects were actually replaying Doom during REM sleep.
Could this mean that dreams function as a kind of virtual context for our minds to explore and attempt to resolve issues affecting us in the real world? Do dreams simulate scenarios and situations as a means of learning at a subconscious level in the same way we would from a real-world experience?
Probably the most interesting thing demonstrated by this study is the fact that when it comes to the specific reason behind sleeping and dreaming, even in this day and age, we still know practically nothing …